The battle over indecency on the airwaves has now spread to reality TV -- and it looks like a 2003 Fox program has become the test case.

Reuters reports that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the nation's radio and TV broadcasters, has proposed a total fine of $1,183,000 against Fox affiliate stations for their broadcast of the Fox reality series Married By America. The fine works out to $7,000 assessed against each of the 169 Fox affiliates that aired the show at 8 PM, during the "family hours" when children were most likely to be watching.

In a 5-0 ruling, the FCC held that some of the activities portrayed in a specific April 7, 2003 episode focusing on Las Vegas bachelor and bachelorette parties, including scenes of (i) a topless woman straddling a man's torso while lap dancing, (ii) whipped cream being licked off another topless woman's chest and (iii) two female strippers spanking a man wearing only underwear, were indecent under federal standards. Although the nudity was partially obscured, the FCC received 159 complaints about the show and eventually concluded that the actions were so explicit that, in its words, "even a child would have known that the strippers were topless and that sexual activity was being shown."

Under FCC administrative law, Fox has 30 days to appeal the fines. Fox spokesperson Scott Grogin told Reuters, ""We disagree with the FCC's decision and believe the content was not indecent," which indicates that the FCC probably hasn't heard the last of this yet.

This is the FCC's second recent fine for televised indecency. In the first, CBS's 20 owned-and-operated stations were fined $27,500 each (for a total fine of $550,000) for "Nipplegate": the seemingly-deliberate exposure of Janet Jackson's breast during a Super Bowl halftime show produced by MTV, CBS's sister network under the Viacom umbrella. At the time, the FCC ruled that CBS affiliates (other than the owned-and-operated ones) that broadcast the halftime show would not be fined due to the fact that previous Super Bowl halftime shows had been free from indecency.

In this case, though, Fox affiliates were on notice regarding the sexually-explicit nature of Married by America -- and at least one Fox affiliate, Raleigh's WRAZ, had pulled the show after broadcasting its initial episodes. Under those circumstances, FCC commissioners concluded that fines should not be limited to the 25 Fox affiliates owned and operated by Fox. Since all of the Fox affiliates were on notice about the show, fining all of the ones who aired it seemed fair to the FCC.

We note that this latest FCC ruling is consistent with its recent trend of indecency decisions, including a $1.5 million fine against Viacom and a $1.75 million fine against Clear Channel Communications related to Howard Stern's radio show. Stern subsequently announced that he would move his morning-drive radio broadcasts to the subscription-based Sirius satellite network, in part to evade future indecency charges.

However, while such fines might be an acceptable cost of doing business with the highly-successful Howard Stern, they are likely to seem fairly steep to Fox affiliates that aired the Fox reality show. After premiering to lukewarm ratings as Fox's ballyhooed time slot successor to the network's then-smash hit Joe Millionaire series (the two series even shared the same production company), Married by America quickly went downhill and became a massive disappointment -- both creatively and ratings-wise.